Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Newsploitation: The Phantom of the Box Office

Pardon the interruption in our continued H.P. Lovecraft film coverage, but we figured we’d take a day to remember another box office birthday. Rather than being something that set the ticket takers on fire, this is a film that came and went in a matter of weeks. But it is an important film in that it demonstrated several box office lessons for the producers (and me, at the time).  Namely, a hot property in another medium isn’t always a guaranteed success and just because a performer is popular as one character doesn’t mean it will translate to other projects.  So allow me to draw up the curtain on 1989’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

This new version of Gaston Leroux’s novel was officially announced by Cannon at MIFED in October 1988.  No, that isn’t an error.  Cannon was the original backer/distributor for this film.  The following two-page slick advert from the October 19, 1988 Variety publicized the film and boasted the major casting coup for Golan/Globus as they had hired Robert Englund – horror’s hottest actor and Freddy Kreuger himself – to play the title role.

Original PHANTOM announcement
(click to enlarge)

If you clicked on the large version of the ad, you probably noticed a few things.  First, a promised start date of November 28, 1988 was listed.  Second, the screenplay was credited solely to Gerry O’Hara.  Third, John Hough was listed as the director.  A lot of changes would go down before the cameras eventually started rolling.

Perhaps the biggest change was Cannon going bankrupt.  Menahem Golan split and quickly moved on to the newly reconstituted 21st Century Film Corporation.  Most folks know he took both the Marvel titles Cannon owned (Spider-Man and Captain America) with him.  He also took the Englund vehicle, which was to be produced by Harry Alan Towers, and groomed it to be 21st Century’s first theatrical release.  Behind-the-scenes turmoil was abound as by the time December 1988 rolled around, the film’s listing in Variety’s “future productions” guide featured all new players. O’Hara was now credited with the earlier script and Duke Sandefur was now listed as the screenwriter.  I suspect lots of drama went on there as Sandefur’s script wasn’t even copyrighted until September 1989.  Also, director Hough was out and Dwight H. Little was in. Honestly, this change was probably for the best as Little was coming off the hit HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988) while Hough – who was great in the 1970s – had just given the world THE HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE (1988).  Production start dates moved from January 1989 to February to eventually March, where filming started in Budapest.  It was a very tight schedule to meet their already planned fall release date.

To make matters worse, the MPAA originally slapped the film with an X-rating for the onscreen violence.  To date, the uncut version has never come out (and I’m sure it is tamer than anything we see on THE WALKING DEAD each week).  According to Variety on August 15, 1989, the film was cut down and received the desired R-rating.  This allowed the producers to go wide with their product and Golan told Variety in an October 18, 1989 article they were “choosing its theatrical releases carefully.” (Amusing, he also said in the same piece that he’d have his MACK THE KNIFE [1989] musical starring Raul Julia out in time for awards season; he missed that date…and the awards.)  Two weeks later, PHANTOM arrived on over 1,400 screens with a thud despite posters reminding everyone that this starred Freddy.  The film failed to even crack the top five its opening weekend, coming in with a paltry $2,050,000 in sixth place behind SECOND SIGHT (1989).  Yes, a film with Bronson Pinchot as a psychic beat this film out.  The grisly new take on the Phantom dropped faster than a chandelier and disappeared within two weeks with a final tally of just $3,953,745. The film also had the unfortunate distinction of being the lone nationwide theatrical release by 21st Century.

As I mentioned in the opening, this film’s failure was also a learning experience for yours truly.  When I heard Freddy Kreuger was going to play the Phantom of the Opera, I thought it would be a smashing success.  “Freddy is huge at the movies, Phantom of the Opera is huge on Broadway, this will be huge,” thought my huge-skewed 14-year-old brain.  Sadly, grown men with access to millions of dollars had the same thought process at the time. So confident was the studio of the film’s predestined success, they had already announced a sequel with Englund called TERROR OF MANHATTAN.  That film never got made.  The script was eventually rewritten and became DANCE MACABRE (1992) with Englund directed by Greydon Clark.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Halloween Havoc: PICKMAN'S MUSE (2010)

As Tom mentioned in our H.P. Lovecraft coverage re-launch, Lovecraft purists have to maintain measured outlooks when it comes to adaptations. They should also temper their expectations when it comes to the actual filmmaking as Lovecraft doesn’t get the studio execs forking over tens of millions (probably the biggest budget given a U.S. Lovecraft adaptation was Dan O’Bannon’s THE RESURRECTED [1991] at $6 million) and it won’t change until Guillermo del Toro adapts AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS (spoiler alert: It’s never gonna happen, kids!).

For better or worse, H.P. Lovecraft remains in the realm of low budget filmmakers.  Perhaps they are drawn to his creative scenarios and “out of the box” ideas.  Or it is the fact that Lovecraft is a marketable name whose works are in public domain?  Yeah, it is totally the latter.  That doesn’t stop filmmakers from attempting to do their best with Lovecraft’s prose and it is how we end up with PICKMAN’S MUSE, the feature film debut from Robert Cappelletto that melds the two short stories “Pickman’s Model” and “The Haunter of the Dark.”

The story opens with painter Robert Pickman (Barret Walz) visiting his psychologist, Dr. Ambrose Dexter (Maurice McNicholas). It seems Pickman is suffering from an ultimate case of writer’s…er, painter’s block and all the pills in the world can’t help him return to his profitable world of lighthouses and seascapes. To make matters worse, the landlady to his one room apartment is pushing her niece upon him.  “She’s pretty.  She doesn’t have any friends either,” she says, obviously needing to brush up on her sale’s techniques.  Pickman’s artistic dry spell comes to an abrupt halt when he is woken up one day by a powerful, glowing sunrise coming through his window.  Staring off into the sky, Pickman becomes transfixed by a church in the horizon and soon begins obsessively drawing and painting this impressive architectural structure.

Pickman takes his latest piece to his agent, who is shocked by it.  Not only is it a markedly dramatic shift in his style, but the church painting is a dead on replica of the work of Goodies Hines (Tom Lodewyck).  Plagiarism is the least of Pickman’s worries though as his agent explains that Hines “killed and mutilated seven people” in an effort to fuel his creative passion.  Even worse, Hines is locked up at the local loony bin and his doctor just happens to be…Dr. Dexter.  (insert dramatic music)  All of this piques Pickman’s curiosity more and he soon finds himself hearing voices and is drawn to the abandoned church.  Crawling among the ruins, he discovers a strange box hidden in a crawlspace.  Inside the box is a glowing purple orbs that, when looked upon, immediately zaps Pickman back to his apartment where he is painting pieces that seem to drive people insane upon sight.  Meanwhile, Dr. Dexter, concerned for his Pickman’s wellbeing, starts investigating the object of Pickman’s obsession and soon unearths the church’s dark past.

We were able to follow the progress of PICKMAN’S MUSE over the years on the fantastic (and sadly now defunct) Unfilmable blog by our buddy Craig.  Although early posters declared the film as “based on H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Haunter of the Dark,’” it is actually more of melding of the two aforementioned short stories to create a Lovecraftian world rather than a straight adaptation.  The painter elements are obviously from “Pickman’s Model” while the main plot and Dr. Dexter are from “The Haunter of the Dark.”  I’m not sure why Cappelletto didn’t just stick with the latter since most of the film centers on the Church of Starry Wisdom and the Shining Trapezohedron (the object found inside the church).  However, the melding of the two ideas works in the film’s favor as the idea of the artist’s struggle/obsession works well into the idea of the Old Ones granting wishes for their return.

One of the film’s biggest strengths is Cappelletto’s ability to deliver a sense of style and build mood on what I assume was a tight budget. The director was also his own cinematographer and he captures some really artistic shots.  Little touches like a dripping water pipe and a dog incessantly barking help successfully build dread on the screen.  Also, Cappelletto has found a killer location for the abandoned church. Dilapidated and cordoned off by a big chain link fence, it reminds me of John Carpenter’s moody main location in PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  I actually wished they had used this location more (a climactic scene in Pickman’s apartment would have been better set here).  It also served as a great set up for the film’s spookiest scene when Dr. Dexter spots an octopus nailed to a makeshift cross.

Naturally, there is some bad stuff as well.  The acting – as in most low budget films – comes in peaks and valleys.  Lead Barret Walz is good in the main role of the tortured artist. Alternately looking like Matthew McConaughey and Barry Pepper, he adequately conveys the inner torment that Pickman is going through. On the other end of the spectrum is pretty much the rest of the cast as everyone is pretty bad.  While I hate to single out a specific performer, Maurice McNicholas as Dr. Dexter is pretty rough. He certainly looks the part of a learned psychologist, but, man, he is bad.  The is one scene where he is questioning some jump roping girls outside of the church and they act better than him.  This hurts the film because viewers will most likely become attached to this character the most as he begins investigating.

That said, I’d still recommend PICKMAN’S MUSE to the interested Lovecraft fan.  Notice I didn’t say horror fan.  If you were raised on the likes of RE-ANIMATOR (1985) or, hell, THE UNNAMABLE flicks, you will no doubt be disappointed by a film like this that keeps the gore and monsters in the shadows.  All in all, I enjoyed PICKMAN’S MUSE despite a few low budget shortcomings.  I give the film an H (honorable) for effort and P (pass) for its craft.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween Havoc: BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP (2006)

Four strange aeons ago we went on an eldrtich binge rounding up a mind-altering 25 H.P. Lovecraft adaptations to froth at the mouth over. It was an epic task that would have driven lesser men mad just contemplating it. To prove that we haven't lost that Lovecraft feeling, we are dedicating the last portion of this year's Halloween Havoc to awakening some of the items that we let slumber lie the first time around.

Every time I talk about H.P. Lovecraft adaptations I feel I have to make a whole mess of qualifying statements to bracket my perception of the movie. Lovecraft fans are much like politics. There are two distinct camps and there is far too much time spent hating in both of them. On the one side you have the purists who demand that every detail be exactly as in the original story, in spite of the fact that everyone seems to agree that the stories are essentially unfilmable. On the other side you have the modernists who want Lovecraft films to be comic gorefests and are bored by tedious dialogue. Then you have everyone in between. This means that no Lovecraft adaptation made by mortal man will make either side happy.

Starting out with a voice-over interview with a former intern of the Ulster County Asylum, we quickly find out that things were not right. "The asylum was built on fear" says the doctor, presumably because a dance academies and hotels had been built over all of the gateways. He tells of an inbred, backwoods drunkard, Joe (William Sanderson), who has been taken to the asylum for the apparent grisly murder of his his family. He was found by the local loud-mouthed sheriff (Tom Savini) holding the bloody skull of one of his kin and mumbling "I sleep, I wake with bad things".

One of the interns at the asylum is Edward Eischel (Fountain Yount), who has been conducting secret experiments in the basement with a physically dead girl who's head he has opened so that he can insert probes into her brain that connect with a machine of his own design. Says Eischel, "I've always believed that human thought is the product of atomic or molecular motion and that motion can be converted into energy waves like heat, light, electricity." To prove his point, he uses his device to send electrical impulses to the dead girl's brain causing her to moan with orgasmic pleasure and repeat simple words. Wait, that really doesn't prove his theory at all does it? No matter, it is still progress!

While taking notes on Joe's examination, Eischel makes an enemy out of the county alienist, Dr. Wardlow (Kurt Hargan) who enjoys using leeches to drain the madness from Joe's body. Joe, as it turns out, has a growth on his back that looks like a face and hands, that Wardlow decides is the remnants of an unrealized twin. He surmises that this is the source of Joe's madness, but what he doesn't realize is just how right he is.

Quickly Eischel discovers that Joe's growth is an infestation of a creature beyond human comprehension named Amducious that is free to gruesomely slaughter humans as soon as Joe goes to sleep, or as Joe says "we sleep, Amducious come, make us free." This leads Eischel down a bloody path to know more, experience more and ultimately free Amducious from Joe's body.

On the one hand the filmmakers try to filch bits of inspiration from Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and FROM BEYOND (1986), particularly in the final act which sports the bulk of the movie's effects work. On the other hand, it still works well for this level of moviemaking, though it seems in a bit of a sharp contrast with the plot-heavy first hour.

As you may have guessed there is a pretty solid thread of Lovecraft's 4,000 word story running through the film Although some details have been changed and many characters have been added along with an entirely new ending, it still is closer to the story than many high-profile adaptations. I hate to be redundant, but as I've said before movies are their own medium, just like books, video games or peyote-induced hallucinations. If you transfer one to another, something is going to change. It is a universal law. If you expect a book to translate flawlessly to the screen, you might as well deny the existence of gravity or believe in the hype over Eli Roth.

Made by Barrett J. Leigh, a Hollywood production manager, with what appears to be an assortment of community theater cast and crew, the film has a plethora of shortcomings. The actors give away their stage training, by acting as if they are in a state play with projected voices and exaggerated mannerisms. The make-up is also done for the stage and looks amateurish in close-up This is particularly painful as it is the biggest detractor from an otherwise interesting effort that I'm assuming started life as a play. I think the casting of Tom Savini in an early role was done simply to make the other actors look better. Casting Savini as an actor instantly demotes your movie to Walmart Bargain Bin status. At the same time, adding William Sanderson in a pivotal role does the movie a lot of favors.
I'm not giving away any major spoilers, because in spite of everything I do think the film is an interesting, if flawed, adaptation. The movie is shot in black and white with bursts of oversaturated and tinted colors whenever Amducious is awake. There is a very surreal, almost uncomfortable style that uses a lot of disorienting rapid edits of imagery to convey Joe's madness and Amducious' otherworldlyness and while you could argue that it has been done before, I think it is nicely done here. Also, I've seen some people bitching about how the lead wears a terribly fake-looking wig. Obviously they never watched the movie, because we find out at the end, that it is supposed to be a terribly fake-looking wig as it is hiding... something. Although some alterations were made from the story, for the most part, I feel that the alterations make for a good movie. I really like the fact that the unnamed being in the story, here called Amducious, has been turned into a malevolent force of mayhem that is only let loose while Joe sleeps. In Lovecraft's story the being is not necessarily violent, but the fact that he is in Joe makes Joe violent. It works great on the printed page, but would be difficult to translate to the screen.

It is definitely a mixed bag, to say the least. It seems this is one film seems to have made neither the purist or the modern camps happy since it tried to marry the two and just like politics, marriage is nothing but trouble. If you are going to delve deep into Lovecraft's filmography, you have to be prepared for no-budget, amateur productions. If not, you will be disappointed nearly every time. With low expectations, this movie has got some good things going for it and you might even be surprised. My recommendation? Watch CHILL (2007) or BEYOND DUNWICH HORROR (2007) first, then you will really appreciate BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Newsploitation: Universal's '80s Halloween Horror Nights

With Halloween just a few days away, you just knew a couple of box office anniversaries for horror flicks would be popping up.  Rather than bore you with two entries, we’ll throw together two titles celebrating different birthdays that both came from Universal Studios in the 1980s. Of all the majors, Universal has the strongest connection with horror thanks to their classic B&W monster films from the ‘30s and ‘40s.  In the ‘80s they adjusted with the times and it gave us two horror films of varying degrees – the documentary TERROR IN THE AISLES (1984) and Wes Craven’s SHOCKER (1989), which are celebrating their 30th and 25th anniversaries, respectively.
Up first we have TERROR IN THE AISLES, which saw national release in the United States on October 26, 1984.  The brainchild of Andrew J. Kuehn and his Kaleidoscope Films, AISLES is quite possible the best and easily the most successful horror documentary of all-time.  Kuehn made his name in the entertainment industry as a developer in the fine art of trailers in the ‘60s.  In the ‘70s he directed one feature (FLUSH [1977]) but spent a majority of his time creating “behind the scenes” featurettes on films like THE SWARM (1978) and THE MAIN EVENT (1979).  Perhaps Kuehn saw the theatrical success of the musical documentary THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT (1974) and realized something covering the horror genre would do quite well.  Sure, Hollywood had beaten them to the punch with Paramount’s IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD (1982) and Universal’s own COMING SOON (1982), but AISLES was a different beast as it took the look at the genre with utmost seriousness.

The project was officially announced in July 1983 with Kuehn working alongside producer Stephen Netburn and writer Margery Doppelt, who has also written some of Kaleidoscope’s making of films.  Obviously aware of who horror fans enjoyed, the filmmakers cast hottie Nancy Allen and slightly hotter Donald Pleasence as our two onscreen narrators who take us into the world of horror as they sit in a theater full of folks watching scary stuff.  Here is really where AISLES succeeds because it features so many clips from horror classics.  One need only glance at the film’s “movie connection” link on the IMDb to see every major studio allowed their films to be shown in a rival’s product.  Could you imagine that today?  Hell, no!  Rather than just being a random clip show, AISLES actually does a great service to the genre as it swiftly moves from topics such as the psychology of horror to horror FX to alien invasion in some masterfully edited sequences (the opening credits montage still gives me goosebumps).  Even better, Kuehn and company don’t abandon suspense and there is a fantastic sequence in the middle that highlights the nail-biting work in non-horror films such as MARATHON MAN (1976), NIGHTHAWKS (1981), and VICE SQUAD (1982).  It is, sadly, the only time we will ever get to see Laurence Olivier and Wings Hauser share the screen.  Fittingly, the only filmmaker shown onscreen in AISLES is Alfred Hitchcock, who tells his “bomb theory” in an excerpt from THE MEN WHO MADE MOVIES: ALFRED HITCHOCK (1973).    

One of the more surprising things I found out about AISLES while looking it up was that the film was initially slapped with an X-rating (“TERROR IN THE AISLES has received a preliminary X rating in the 806th weekly listing of the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration.” – Variety, June 6, 1984).  This pretty much encapsulates how out of control the MPAA was in the ‘80s – a film filled with footage from films that all received an R-rating (or less) gets rated X.  The film was subsequently trimmed to get the highly-coveted R (“[AISLES] has been granted an R following changes in the final section of the film” – Variety, July 6, 1984).  Just over a month later Universal got the film into 18 theaters (in locations as diverse as Las Vegas, Louisville, San Antonio, and my old home, Norfolk) at the end of August.  Apparently they were pleased by the success of this trial run as they ran a full page ad in Variety touting the film’s grosses.  The film officially opened nationwide on October 26, 1984 and earned $4,009,866 to come in second place.  To give you an idea of how amazing this weekend was, look at the other two new films that bookended AISLES.

Yes, it made just under $11,000 less than THE TERMINATOR (1984).  In total the film ended up grossing $10,004,817.  While that may not seem like a lot, you have to remember this was a documentary.  In fact, it was the highest grossing documentary of that year…unless you count BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (1984).  Amusingly, it was Universal’s second highest grossing horror film that year behind FIRESTARTER (1984).

Five years after TERROR IN THE AISLES, Universal was still in the horror game but losing to their competitors when it came to their former reigning territory of movie monsters.  Paramount had Jason Voorhees and New Line had Freddy Krueger while Universal’s biggest horror star was that mama’s boy Norman Bates.  The studio, however, felt they got a bit of a coup as they signed the distribution rights for two modern horror masters – John Carpenter and Wes Craven – via Alive Films.

The story of Wes Craven during the ‘70s and ‘80s is actually a pretty sad one.  Despite having created three box office hits (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT [1972], THE HILLS HAVE EYES [1977], and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET [1984]) for different companies, the director still found himself broke in the mid-‘80s.  How broke? He signed on to do THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 (1985) for the cash.  Goddamn!  Anyway, Craven sat back and watched his Freddy creation earn millions for everyone but himself and, even though he came back for part 3, he soon found himself frozen out of that film.  This led to doing TV work on the new TWILIGHT ZONE and DEADLY FRIEND (1986) before Craven scored the surprise box office hit THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) for Universal. This led to a 4-picture deal with Alive that began with SHOCKER.  Craven freely admitted to the press he wanted to do other things but couldn’t pass up the company’s offer for a new horror franchise with a character he owned.  Uh oh.

Telling a very ELM STREET-esque story of a vengeful killer who stalks a high school teen he has a mental connection with, SHOCKER is a glaringly obvious attempt to create a new franchise horror character.  If you had any doubt that Craven was trying to capture lightning in a bottle again, know that the original title for his script was DREAMSLAYER.  Hell, he was cooing about plans for SHOCKER 2 and SHOCKER 3 before the release and went so far as to tell Cinefantastique this:

“Certainly, this is a sincere and unabashed attempt to create a series that I will own and control with my partners.  There’s a profound sense of loss in being so out of the participation of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET…Rather than sulking in a corner or doing something really nasty, I go out and compete with them.  It’s my way of saying ‘I can do it again, can you?’”

Of course, this type of forced creation rarely succeeds and usually occurs in a more organic fashion with the audience deciding who they want to support on their killing sprees.  That, coupled with the fact Craven named his lead villain Horace Pinker, probably sealed the film’s fate before it started filming on March 3, 1989. Not only was it a cynical/commercial effort on Craven’s behalf, but you could practically see the studio salivating at the potential horror fan dollars as they filled the flick with a bunch of metal bands. “Horror fans love metal so lets fill the film with metal,” you could practically hear an old white exec say.  Naturally, the soundtrack came out via a subsidiary of Universal Music Group.

Fans, however, weren’t buying it.  Perhaps it was the film’s goofy ass poster or just a general horror burn out, but the film came in second place when it hit theaters on October 27, 1989.  It earned a total of  $4,510,990 that weekend and lost out to LOOK WHO’S TALKING (1989), which had previously felled HALLOWEEN 5 (1989).  In total the film made $16,554,699 at the U.S. box office.  That was about $6 million less that the fifth ELM STREET sequel from the previous August and a far cry from the $57 million garnered by PET SEMETARY (1989), that year’s biggest horror hit.  No one outside of Craven seemed to have an interest in the further exploits of Mr. Pinker.  LOL, Pinker, what were you thinking with that name, Wes?  The director rebounded for Universal a few years later with THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991), but the deal with Alive ended there.  Craven later found himself partying with Freddy again in NEW NIGHTMARE (1994).  Oddly, that film didn’t rekindle the franchise flame and Craven has to suffer by making some film called SCREAM (1996), which ended up capturing audiences and creating a highly profitable series.  Kind of funny how that works.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Halloween Havoc: CARNAGE (1984)

It is hard to believe we’ve covered/endured so much Cinemasocism over the last four and a half years, but have barely touched the brutal cinematic world of Andy Milligan.  Outside of a tiny review of BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS (1970), we haven’t reviewed them and that is for a good reason – Milligan’s films are more of an endurance test rather than entertainment.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the seize-the-audience nature of his lurid, attention grabbing titles like TORTURE DUNGEON (1970) or THE RATS ARE COMING! THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE! (1972). Unfortunately, the fun and creativity seems to end there.  Instead of gruesome exploitation flicks, we get what are basically glorified home movies.  To his credit, Milligan was the film version of a one man band and did everything from costuming to editing to photography.  He was sort of like Ed Wood minus the angora sweater and former A-list actors.

The Minnesota-born Milligan began his film career in earnest with gay-themed, arty shorts like VAPORS (1965) and THE GAY LIFE (1967).  He hit pay dirt in the late ‘60s when distributor William Mishkin appeared in the role of financier/benefactor on THE PROMISCUOUS SEX (1968).  Together the two men made eight films in the sexploitation and horror genres from 1968-1973.  Surprisingly, for such a prolific filmmaker, CARNAGE was Milligan’s first film of the 1980s, when horror was booming again.  There was a five year gap between production of this in 1983 and his previous feature, the deliciously titled LEGACY OF BLOOD (1978).  It seems the success of housebound paranormal films like THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) and POLTERGEIST (1982) got Milligan in the director’s chair (folding, no doubt) once more and this time he was working for Lew Mishkin, son of William.  Yes, it may have been a new decade, but Milligan was up to his old Staten Island tricks.

The film opens with a couple dressed in their wedding outfits listening to a Victrola play “Here Comes the Bride.”  Apparently not fans of wedded bliss, the couple dies within the first few minutes as the husband shoots his wife in the head and then kills himself.  Now when this is taking place is totally left up to the viewer. Milligan ain’t got time for stuff like setting, place, or time period.  That is standard for a Milligan production, where the viewer is kind of like a traveler pre-Google Maps. Sure, you might know where you are headed, but you’ll probably get lost along the way and it’s your own damn fault for taking this trip anyway.  An onscreen title of “three years later” brings us up to date and apparently this is contemporary as a modern couple – Jonathan (Michael Chiodo) and Carol Henderson (Leslie Den Dooven) – has purchased the house, unaware of its history.  Strange things start happening right away as cabinets swing open, tea cups move by themselves, and hedge clippers keep scooting around.  Oh, scary!  Worst of all, the Victrola starts playing that stupid record and the stove gas line mysteriously turns on while they are sleeping.  Jeez, these ghosts are jerks.  

This dimwitted couple never thinks the place is haunted and instead blames all these strange occurrences on forgetfulness.  Of course, these might not be worldly folks as evidenced by Dan saying, “I always wanted to take a bubble bath” the first night he and his wife are home.  Ah, yes, the haughty airs of le bubble bath.  Paranormal activity isn’t going to keep them from having their housewarming party though and they hire a cleaning lady to fix the place up. Naturally, she is spooked out of her mind as the ghostly image of a blood splattered bride taunts her in the basement.  This sends here into a comatose state and she later slashes her own throat at home.  In addition to random victims, the housewarming plot allows for some completely superfluous subplot involving Henderson friend Ann, who argues with her mother about Ann’s fiancĂ© Walter.  Prepare thy self for the riveting scene where mother explains marriage to her daughter: “You just have to give your man a lot of rope to wander with in early years of wedded bliss.  Then every year you pull it in without him noticing it and suddenly you won’t need it anymore.”  Oh jeez, can we get back to the slightly shifting candlesticks, please?

Thankfully, Milligan wakes things up a bit as he works in a scene where two thieves (I assume that is what they are as they have no dialogue) break into the basement and are slaughtered by the bride ghost.  In what might be the film’s biggest special effect (and possibly the biggest of Milligan’s career), one guy is pinned to the wall with a pitchfork and then has his guts ripped out in the air. Sure, they look like ropes with no blood on them, but its shoddiness contributes to the overall grossness.  A couple o’ corpses ain’t gonna stop this house warming though and soon Dan and Carol are joined by Ann and Walter and heretofore unmentioned Tony and Margaret.  Those pesky ghosts aren’t going to stand for this and they give house warming a new meaning by electrocuting Walter in the bathtub.  This tragedy finally prompts Carol to look into the history of the house.  She meets an old man at city hall and he tells her the previous occupants were Mark (Chris Georges) and Susan Webb (Deeann Veeder).  They were dead set on restoring this house to its original condition, but got sidetracked by a miscarriage and Susan getting terminal cancer.  They opted out of life, hence the opening suicides.  Carol figures the only way to end this mess is to get a priest involved and soon we have bootleg Max Von Sydow showing up (in a white turtleneck to mimic a priest’s collar).  Can he successfully combat the household items flinging around on monofilament line?  Don’t find out.

Oh lord.  Anytime I finish a movie this bad, I always hear that half-lady zombie from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) screaming, “The paaaaaaaaaaaaaaain.” Despite this being my fifth or sixth Milligan outing, I still get smacked in the face at how stunningly bad his films are with their snail pacing and stilted acting. Milligan’s body may have moved into the ‘80s, but his mind and film aesthetic were still stuck in the same late ‘60s/early ‘70s style that defines his work.  While it is admirable that he tried to cash in on something new, the only thing CARNAGE has in common with those aforementioned haunted house blockbusters is being set in a house with ghosts.  Imagine POLTERGEIST if it was made for $100 and ILM stood for I Love Monofilament.  If you did a drinking game for every time something was pulled by string to simulate ghostly happenings, you’d have alcohol poisoning within the first half hour.  Even worse, Milligan decided the sound of things moving should be a cross between a window being washed and a dog mewling.

The anti-director receives no favors from his writer, who just happens to be some dude named…Andy Milligan!  Seriously, this film has a moment at the end where the bride ghost pleads, “Don’t go” to the Hendersons and says they just want the house to stay as it is.  Wait, why didn’t you say that at the beginning?  Why did you have to get all aggressive and kill a bunch of folks?  I will admit that Milligan does pull off one funny dialogue exchange, but I don’t think it was intentional.  When the priest arrives, he is rather pragmatic in his approach to this haunting.

Priest: “I don’t see any way of resolving the 
problem except, uh, sell the house”
(ghost scream heard off camera)
Jonathan: “Uh.”
Carol: “That’s the same sound we heard the night 
you smashed the wedding march.”
Jonathan: “Look, we love this house.”
Priest: “My brother is a real estate developer. He could give you 
a very nice price on your house. Here’s his card.”

It is a shame this is all so bad as the house used in the film (it was Milligan’s own home) is a cool looking place.  Apparently the house burned down right after the filming of CARNAGE, as if it just couldn’t take being associated with being in a Milligan flick.  You know your movie is bad when the main location commits suicide.  If you still have any desire to see this after my review (and I know you do, you insane horror fans), just check out this trailer and be done with it.  Milligan in a minute is plenty.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Newsploitation: Mutant Baby Turns 40!

If you were to believe the horror media, only one horror masterpiece is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month – THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).  However, another film also came out this month forty years ago and experienced a much more painful birth before its eventual classic status – Larry Cohen’s iconic IT’S ALIVE first hit theaters forty years ago today on October 18, 1974.  Unlike Tobe Hooper’s unnerving film which found instant success, Cohen’s mutant baby epic had a rather difficult delivery that saw the filmmaker claw and scratch as much as his lead killer kid for years in an effort to give his first horror effort as a director a right to live.

According to Cohen on the film’s DVD commentary, IT’S ALIVE was born from wondering what a tantrum-throwing baby could do with power combined with the idea of parents being terrified of their children in the wake of the ‘60s counterculture.  With the go ahead from Warner Bros. on his script, the director maintained an insane pace while shooting the film in September/October 1973. Cohen would shoot Monday through Friday on this film and then use Saturday and Sunday to finish shooting HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), the sequel to his hit BLACK CAESAR (1973) starring Fred Williamson.  Unfortunately, by the time Cohen finished his horror film, he found the regime that had greenlit it at Warner Bros. had been replaced. Rather than judge the film on its own merit, the new execs took the all-too-common Hollywood approach of disregarding any property their predecessor had backed. This resulted in IT’S ALIVE getting a one theater play date with a rather unimaginative ad campaign sporting the “Whatever it is…It’s Alive” tagline.

The company opened the film at the Woods Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, where it did very respectable business.  This actually happened earlier in 1974, before the “official” October 1974 release date.  Figures reported in Variety were very good (“IT’S ALIVE is bowing to a good $22,000” – May 1, 1974; “IT’S ALIVE is an okay $21,000 in a fourth Woods whirl” – May 22, 1974).  The fact that it was grossing just one thousand dollars less than its debut four weeks earlier at just one theater is pretty impressive.  But not impressive enough for the Warner execs, who penciled it in for a limited rather than national roll out in the fall on October 18, 1974.  Interestingly, a full-page ad was placed in Variety’s December 4, 1974 issue touting the film’s regional successes at the box office (figures shown include $175,370 in Los Angeles and $219,480 in Chicago), but the powers that be still refused to get 100% behind the picture.  IT’S ALIVE played well into 1975 – it was still charting in October of that year with co-feature BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) – but never achieved the kind of mainstream success Cohen felt the film was capable of.

AIRPORT 1975 fells IT'S ALIVE in Box Office magazine
(October 28, 1974)

Ever the workaholic, Cohen put the film behind him briefly as he subsequently wrote and directed GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) and THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER (1977).  Cohen’s distance from the film, however, was short lived and when he found out that another regime change had taken place at Warner Bros. in 1976, he implored the new guys charge to review the film.  Like the aggrieved father in IT’S ALIVE played by John P. Ryan, Cohen fought for his baby to have the life it truly deserved.  After enthusiastic screenings (with one exec calling it the “scariest motion picture he’d ever seen”), Warner Bros. Executive VP and General Sales Manager Terry Semel decided to reissue the flick in the spring of 1977 with hundreds of prints and a national roll out, despite this cinematic toddler being over two years old.  Cohen’s baby also got prettied up with a brand new ad campaign that understood and conveyed the picture better.  With the tagline “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby…It’s Alive” and a memorable TV spot with the iconic baby carriage/claw imagery, the film soon became the stuff of horror legend and thrilled audiences anew when it unreeled in March 1977.  Imagine that today – a film nearly two and a half years old getting re-released and raking in the cash. The studio had no qualms about the success this time around as they began filling trade papers with ads touting the film’s box office success.  Semel went so far as to credit the film as one of the contributing factors in Warner’s great first quarter in 1977.

IT’S ALIVE tops respectable company in Variety 
(May 11, 1977)

Warner Bros. pimps IT'S ALIVE hard:

Cohen’s confidence in the picture was finally reaffirmed and he soon found himself a wealthy man due to the project.   He also soon found the studio that wanted to abort his baby begging him for a sequel, which he delivered the following year in IT LIVES AGAIN (1978).  He finished off the trilogy almost a decade later with IT’S ALIVE 3: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987) and co-wrote the eventual remake IT’S ALIVE (2008).  So let’s all wish happy birthday to the Davis baby.  Now let’s celebrate and have some cake…oh, junior!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Halloween Havoc: MAXIM XUL (1991)

Kids, you might want to sit down for this one.  Before being allowed to subsist on convention earnings from bloated autograph sales, former A-list movie stars actually had to earn their keep back in the day.  Past their prime actors and actresses had to keep the lights on and this resulted in some truly odd screen appearances.  It explains how people like Karen Black, David Carradine, and even Margaux Hemingway end up in Fred Olen Ray movies in the ‘80s.  Hell, it explains Aldo Ray’s entire career post-1968.  They didn’t have the luxury of $50 autographs, so they worked and took everything that came their way.  These pre-convention blues explains how Adam West, TV’s popular Batman, wound up finding himself in this low budget demonic possession oddity from Baltimore, Maryland.

The film opens in a blue collar bar where blue collar folks do what they always do in their down time – drink beer and arm wrestle!  The unofficial champ challenges a guy wearing a yellow hardhat and promptly loses.  After winning, the hardhat guy heads home, only to be followed down an alley by a stranger and beaten to death with a wrench. Now either people in Maryland take their arm wrestling mucho serious, or there is some kind of killer haunting the night.  My money is on the former.  Enter our hero, Detective Joe Kavanagh (Jefferson Leinberger).  We learn right away that some of his peers don’t think too highly of him as one guy says he sucks as a detective and mentions he only got the job because of his cop daddy. While exploring the crime scene surroundings, Joe runs into Professor Marduk (Adam West) who cryptically says this kind of stuff interests him.

Joe goes to visit his potential squeeze in reporter Amanda Treet (Mary Schaeffer), but she is preoccupied by these killings dubbed “The Ripper Murders.”  Wow, real original there, newspaper staff.  We then inexplicably cut to a courtroom scene where sleazy defense attorney Phyllis Robishon (Billie Shaeffer) is grilling an old lady witness on the stand.  Jeez, this casting agent sure liked folks named Schaeffer/Shaeffer.  Anyway, Robishon proves her unpleasantness by making an old lady cry and then run out of the courtroom.  They run things differently in Maryland I guess.  Apparently, this was one of Joe’s cases and he is pissed at Robishon.  But not pissed enough to turn down her offer of dinner.  Post-meal they head back to Robishon’s place and she lays it all out on the line for him when she says, “You’re not for sale and I want what I can’t have.”  He shows her by leaving her standing cold in her negligee, which causes her to crush her wine glass in her hand.  Wait, wasn’t this movie about demons and killings?

Meanwhile, Amanda and her wannabe reporter photographer Gene (Tony Vogelli) keep investigating the murders. They stumble upon a guy named Earl Wilson (Hal Strieb), a former killer who just happened to be released from an insane asylum the day the murders started and, if you caught it, was the killer in the opening.  When they stake out his place, they see him carrying a bunch of packages inside.  Naturally, they break in and discover he has stored a bunch of body parts in a trunk.  Unfortunately for them, he comes back mid-search and attacks them with a power grinder.  Luckily for them, Joe and his partner Frank (Charles E. Rickard, who also co-wrote) pulled up Wilson’s name on the computer after Wilson beat up Joe at the bar from the opening.  They arrive just in time to put some more lead in his diet. This leads us to another Adam West cameo where he says, “It’s not over” and implores the detective to come visit him for info.  Jeez, this guy is playing hard to get.  You know, Prof, you could just tell him what you know right there.

Anyway, it turns out the cryptic college professor is right.  Doctors at the hospital marvel that Wilson is still alive because “four of the six shots you hit him with were fatal wounds.”  A loose end, Wilson doesn’t have very long to live though as someone wearing high heels enters his room and rips the throat out of the comatose killer.  Gee, this movie only has two female characters so I wonder who the killer is.  News of Wilson’s death reaches Joe and we get the following great exchange:

Joe: “I thought it was over.”
Amanda: “He said it wasn’t.”
Joe: “Who?”

Who?  You forgot the professor who said it wasn’t over just a few hours ago?  You know what, Joe, I’m starting to agree with your colleagues that say you might be a crappy detective. So Joe finally goes to see Prof. Marduk and gets a speech about Maxim Xul (Ultimate Evil), the world’s worst demon, by a fireplace.  So this is why Marduk didn’t want to tell Joe his story in public?  He wanted atmosphere and mood?

Apologies if my review is a bit too plot heavy, but there really isn’t much to say about MAXIM XUL.  I’m not sure why, but the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was a time rife with “that woman be possessed” flicks like THE KISS (1988), THE GUARDIAN (1990), SATAN’S PRINCESS (1990), and PRETTY WOMAN (1990). Okay, maybe not that last one.  Debuting director Arthur Egeli seems to have also been influenced quite a bit by the previous year’s THE EXORCIST III (1990), which partially shot in neighboring Washington D.C. before this.  In fact, the films are remarkably similar as you have a detective chasing/facing a supernatural evil killer mutilating bodies.  Where the two films differ is when it comes to solid plotting, good acting, and all that stuff. Lead Jefferson Leinberger is about as dull as they come and isn’t done any favors by the screenplay by Egeli and co-star Rickard.  Seriously, this might be one of the dumbest cop characters ever on screen.  Imagine this, an investigator who doesn’t investigate!  Hell, he doesn’t even like to ask questions outside of “do you have plans for dinner?”  Also, the mystery as to who the main villain is doesn’t pan out as, like I mentioned before, the film only has two female characters.  Yes, if you didn’t gather it earlier, Maxim Xul is the female attorney.  Even worse, none of the cops seem to recognize all of the ripper victims are trial witnesses.  Worst of all, Egeli doesn’t deliver when we finally see the villain in demon form.  Looking like a refurbished Syngenor mask, Maxim Xul only gets a few seconds of screen time before getting its head lopped off.  It is a shame too as the film does have some things going for it.  Enlisting West is a smart move in terms of getting attention (look at that “Adam West is totally in this” cover above), even if he is only in it a total of 10 minutes.  Egeli gets some good, atmospheric shots and lighting in the film with the help of DP Thomas Lappin.  It is no surprise that Lappin went on to a big career as a camera operator on big budget films like THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and NON-STOP (he also worked on the Maryland lensed HONOR AND GLORY [1993] around the time of XUL).  That said MAXIM XUL failed to live up to its maximal potential.  Oh yeah, you were waiting for one of those.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Newsploitation: The Mangling of Michael Myers

It makes sense that October would see a lot of box office birthdays since this is a month most targeted for releasing our kind of film. Unfortunately, the first one for this month is kind of a downer because it is a film that is not even close to being a classic.  In fact, it is downright awful.  Hey, they can’t all be good ones, right? Celebrating its 25th anniversary today is HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS, which saw release on October 13, 1989.  The second John Carpenter-less sequel, this continuation of Michael Myers’ triumphant return ended up being the worst of the series…at that point anyway since we had no idea how low things could go.

While some think HALLOWEEN 5 was just a quick cash grab after the success of HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS, the film was actually announced by producer Moustapha Akkad in April 1988 when the fourth entry began filming.  Of course, the fifth entry going into production was predicated on the success of the fourth film, which hit theaters on October 21, 1988.  With HALLOWEEN stalwarts John Carpenter and Debra Hill out of the equation, Akkad struck gold regardless as audiences were still craving Michael Myers slashing seven years after his last onscreen appearance.  HALLOWEEN 4 opened in first place and, thanks to smart timing (a HALLOWEEN film around Halloween, imagine that, Weinsteins!), maintained that spot for two weekends in a row.  Amusingly, it was unseated in its third week by THEY LIVE (1988), a film by Myers daddy John Carpenter.  Eventually, HALLOWEEN 4 brought in just under $18 million dollars in the U.S. box office.  Not ELM STREET numbers, but enough to prove The Shape still had some swing in his slash.

So, naturally, Akkad splurged on the next entry and gave it more funds, right?  Ha, yeah right!  According to some sources, Akkad cut the $5 million dollar budget that HALLOWEEN 4 got down to $3 million dollars for HALLOWEEN 5.  Usually aren’t sequels supposed to increase the production budget?  You could practically hear Akkad saying, “Zee people love-ah Michael! Why spend-ah more money on zee film?  All-ah you need is mask and knife.”  I’m not sure why I made the Syrian producer sound Italian but go with it.  Akkad actually passed off the main producer duties to Ramsey Thomas, who may or may not be the director of the utterly bizarre Akkad production APPOINTMENT WITH FEAR (1985).  If you’ve seen that flick, you’ll understand why this film turned out so bad.

While the principal players on screen remained the same, the switch from parts four to five saw a complete overhaul in nearly every department behind the camera.  The fourth entry’s screenwriters were jettisoned in favor of 28-year-old Shem Bitterman.  Akkad also parted ways with director Dwight H. Little – who I consider the real reason HALLOWEEN 4 is a success – and instead put the Swiss-born helmer Dominique Othenin-Girard in control.  He was signed on the strength of his Lilith-centered horror film NIGHT ANGEL (1990), which was finished before HALLOWEEN 5 but released afterward.  And by “strength” I mean he could make a slick looking film for cheap. According to an Othenin-Girard interview in Gorezone, his first order of business was to substantially rewrite Bitterman’s script.  I’m sure that made the screenwriter live up to his last name.  With a production locked in to return to Salt Lake City, Utah for filming in May 1989, it is no surprise to hear that the six week production started with an unfinished screenplay (Othenin-Girard rewrote constantly with co-writer Michael Jacobs while filming).  It definitely shows in the final product as the film is unfocused and even perplexing at times.  The film takes so many missteps and ends with a total head-scratching cliffhanger (The Man in the Black Boots) that you have to agree with Donald Pleasance when he told Fangoria that the young director seemed to have no idea he was making the fifth entry in a long running series.  It tarnished the series so much that when John Carpenter suggested sending Myers into space, fans thought, “Hmmm, that isn’t half bad.”  Perhaps Othenin-Girard and Akkad’s biggest faux pas was they decided to have KNB effects rework the iconic Michael Myers mask, taking it from William Shatner to something that resembles Lin Shaye.

Not surprisingly, when the film opened in October 1989, fans weren’t pleased.  For some odd reason, it had been a tough year for every horror icon as both Freddy and Jason saw their annual entries sink at the box office.  Gee, could it have anything to do with them being rushed productions?  Anyway, poor Michael saw the worst of it.  The film debuted in second place at the box office, behind fellow newcomer LOOK WHO’S TALKING (1989).  Yes, audiences preferred to see a film about talking babies starring John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.  The film made just over $5 million dollars that weekend and was gone from theaters with a haul of $11 million in a few weeks.  The most ironic thing?  By the time the weekend preceding Halloween (October 27-29) arrived, no one was going to see a film called HALLOWEEN.  To date it remains the lowest grossing film of the series.  It was so bad that it put the entire series on ice for six years before Akkad got it into the hands of the Weinstein brothers via their Dimension arm.  They brought us the equally inane HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995), a film legendary for its behind-the-scenes turmoil.  As true signs of their genius, they released it in September 1995.